Forget the nature nuts, let's golf: Saratoga Spa course swings in a state park

By Chris Baldwin, Contributor

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Every state park should have its own golf course. After all, what's the use of having all that nature if you're not going to sculpt some greens and plant flags around it?

Saratoga Spa Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, New York - No. 1
Saratoga Spa's first hole takes a sharp dogleg turn at the tall brown grass.
Saratoga Spa Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, New York - No. 1Saratoga Spa Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, New York - No. 10Saratoga Spa Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, New York - tall treesSaratoga Spa Golf Course - Saratoga Springs, New York - state park
If you go

Okay, maybe the National Audubon Society would disagree. And surely there are some PETA folks who would be outraged over a few squirrels being disturbed.

Thankfully, Saratoga Spa State Park does not give a damn.

This state park in the late-summer horse-racing paradise of Saratoga Springs does not just have a golf course. It has a 7,141-yard golf course that runs through towering pine trees and takes precedence over nearly everything else.

When a beaver dam broke this spring, causing flooding in nearby areas, the state police closed the park - except to golfers. All it took to get waved through past the roadblocks is to declare you had a tee time.

"We take our games pretty seriously around here," local Bill Bakely said.

That's not false bravado. One morning during this visit, golfers swung away in a near torrential downpour. And not just a few diehard duffers: The course was jammed. Saratoga Springs' charming main street cleared out, Saratoga Spa Golf Course remained packed.

That's how it goes here. With green fees of $33, the tee sheet's almost always full, to the tune of more than 40,000 rounds a year. This in upstate New York, where golf season sometimes doesn't start until April.

The irritation potential is high. But the starter - an older fellow who seems to make it his personal business that every golfer has a good time - really strives to keep waits manageable. He'll fit in a straggling single or even a twosome without a reservation.

Saratoga Spa is cheap public golf the way you always imagined it could be.

The course isn't in perfect shape, but the state-park setting makes up for the off rough patches. There are no golf-community homes crowding the fairways. At Saratoga Spa, it's just you and the pine trees.

These trees seem to be stretching to reach the sky. They flank the fairways, lean right over some bunkers, all but dare you to hit it wild.

"Is it a scenic course?" regular Lorenzo DiStefano asked, seemingly unsure of his own answer. He looked down the first fairway, to the tall brown grass swaying in the wind in the rough at the turn of a tree-lined dogleg.

"I'm used to it," DiStefano said. "But it's scenic."

It's even more striking if you didn't grow up in a land of Paul Bunyan. What the locals take for granted can wow visitors.

It all starts with a 463-yard par 4 that takes a sharp right through the forest up to a green with two big bunkers in front. Then it's on to the straightforward, 218-yard par 3 second and a good chance to be staring at a makeable birdie putt.

You can definitely use it coming into No. 3, a 493-yard par 5 that doesn't look fearsome from the scorecard but plays as the toughest hole on the course. There's a decent-sized pond dissecting the fairway up near a small green, set back, tree-flanked and bunker-guarded. Get through this first three and you're off and rolling through the trees on your Saratoga Spa round.

It's enough to make you wonder when they're going to get around to putting a course in Yellowstone.

Saratoga Spa State Park: The verdict

It's no wonder that a few golfers at the much more high-brow and expensive Saratoga National Golf Club recommended checking out Saratoga Spa. This is fun golf in a good setting.

In some ways it's more satisfying than the heavily hyped National. Saratoga Spa boasts a 130 slope rating from the back tees, but it doesn't confound golfers with tricks or a slew of forced carries. There are fun, drivable holes - like No. 10, a straightforward, 360-yard par 4 that invites hackers to go for it while the crowd outside the pro shop watches.

Of course, there's always the risk of your Pro V1 ricocheting off several trunks.

Even with all the trees, you're not going to feel like you're in any Blair Witch Project woods. Parts of the course run along several of the park's main roads. No. 12 looks right out onto the Gideon Putnam Resort's impressive front side. Of course, with 12's skinnier fairway and raised green (with large bunker bodyguards), your attention is probably going to be elsewhere.

Once you get to hit, that is. Saratoga Spa's drawback is its popularity. No matter how much they claim to stress pace of place, you're waiting.

Being a golfer at Saratoga Spa will get you past police barricades. But it won't guarantee you an open tee.

Saratoga Springs restaurants

Sarago's - the only AAA Four Diamond restaurant in upstate New York, with prices to match - is in Saratoga National's ornate clubhouse. For a less trendy, less costly but still innovative meal try Scallions (518-584-0192) on Broadway, Saratoga Springs' main drag. The crab-cake appetizer is particularly tasty.

For a good hamburgers or soups in a neat historic setting, call in at the Olde Bryan Inn (518-587-2990). Parking can be a pain and the place is packed at lunch, but it's located in a circa-1773 building and the hostesses are some of the friendliest old ladies you'll ever meet.

Stay and play

A lack of quality, reliable hotels is one of Saratoga's drawbacks. Gideon Putnam Resort - located right in the state park, a short drive from downtown - has a nice exterior and a nicer staff. It also has smallish rooms with lumpy beds and no individual room-controlled air conditioning. Batcheller Mansion Inn is hosted by a particularly pretentious innkeeper who forces guests to ring a bell to gain entry at check-in the middle of the day and requires visitors to make an appointment to tour the house.

Fast fact

Saratoga Spa Golf Course was born as a nine-hole track, considered an add-on to the nearby spa's mineral waters. When the area became a state park in 1963 the course was expanded to 18 holes designed by William Mitchell.

Chris BaldwinChris Baldwin, Contributor

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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